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At Speakers’ Corner

March 28, 2022
by the gentle author

“I’m old enough to know better and young enough not to care”

Despite the timbre of the message he has been wearing around his neck each Sunday at Speakers’ Corner for decades, Bob Rogers is not the lugubrious fellow you might imagine. Contrary to expectation, he wears it to cheer people up – as he explained to me when I joined him in the park one Sunday.

“It was the winter when British Rail reported ‘The Wrong Kind of Snow’ on the line and that became an Evening Standard headline. The next day, I saw ‘It’s Going to Get Worse,’ on the newsstand as I went through Piccadilly on a bus. So I jumped off and took it from the hoarding and put in my bag because I like the prose style of newspaper headlines,” he explained. “Then I came here on a Sunday in February and everyone looked so miserable that I took it out of my bag and held it up, and it made them all smile. It caught on to such an extent that I am pictured wearing it in guidebooks to London.”

A stalwart of more than half a century at Speakers’ Corner, always in his faded brown corduroy suit with a beret in winter or a bucket hat in summer, and the celebrated notice round his neck, Bob Rogers is an erudite historian and a self-appointed custodian of this celebrated British institution.“Unless I am very unwell, I always come here because it retains its function as a meeting place and you encounter people from all around the world,” he revealed to me, “I keep coming back because I know people here and they know me, so it has a social content as well as a social purpose.”

As if to illustrate this, one of Bob’s pals joined us and, realising I was doing an interview, he took the opportunity to make some points.”These days people are frightened of saying the wrong thing,” he assured me, rolling his eyes contemptuously, “It’s no longer about politics, it’s just a circus of religion – fifty seven varieties of Christianity and fifty-seven varieties of Islam and they all disagree with each other.”

The 1873 reform of the Parks Regulation Act of 1872 conferred legitimacy upon Speakers’ Corner, enshrining the right to give an address though not – as some assume – the right to free speech since speakers are still subject to the law.“I enjoy the weekly privilege of visiting the only place where people can gather without police permission,” Bob confided to me, lowering his voice and casting his gaze around,“When people ask me how many police undercover agents are in the park, I say, ‘Every third man.'”

“Over fifty years ago, I missed a connection on my bus and I looked over the railings and I saw all these people and what got me was the babble of their voices,” he continued, as we stood against the railings watching the excited crowds gathered around the speakers and the hecklers adding drama with their interruptions.“The Catholic Evidence Guild were here one hundred years ago and are here this week and that’s because this is the site of of Tyburn, the place of public executions,” Bob added, gazing through the perspective of time,“Even as we speak they are praying for the Catholic Martyrs.”

Then, swinging his arms wildly and intoning like a priest, Bob enacted the bizarre yet compelling performance style of Nutty Norman, the ‘arms-up’ man, one of the past legends of Speakers’ Corner. “You’d never know he was homeless, he carried all his possessions in a shoulder bag,” Bob revealed, protective of his mentor, “He inducted me to the night buses and sometimes he passed the night at Heathrow.” Gesturing to a charismatic speaker surrounded by an attentive gathering, Bob pointed out Heiko Khoo, a part-German-part-Icelandic ex-bus conductor who famously threw Sir Michael Joseph off his bus, declaring, “I’m not having any Tories on my bus!”

Even as Bob and I chatted, bystanders came over and formed an audience around us, in expectation of a colourful debate and making tangible the rare quality of this special place where we are free to speak with each other as humans, without the need to be introduced.

“Religious people talk about the power of God, I talk about Horse power!”

Omid Mankoo – “People’s lives are really fixated on the sex stuff and they’re neglecting everything else. I’ve written this book and I want to share my secrets.”

Matthew from St Albans – “Jesus told me to come here because the years of his blessing our nation are at an end.”

Christians praying

Christians spreading the Word

Thai people protesting against their corrupt government

Celebrating the Thai Royal Family

Proclaiming the Nigerian Messiah

“If that frightens you, give Jesus a call”

“Don’t be late like the foolish virgins”

Bob re-enacts the gestures of Nutty Norman the ‘arms-up’ man

Heiko Khoo – “I’m not having any Tories on my bus!”

Photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. Paul Loften permalink
    March 28, 2022

    It’s over 50 years since I have been there so I don’t recognise a face. I do recall some former speakers . Lord Soper , McGuiness, A tattooed man , A very good SPGB speaker who could have converted the world to socialism but he just made too much sense . I recall one sentence he said . “People don’t need to sit on gold toilet seats “. The Arab -Israeli audience was always well attended and had lots of hecklers but you always lived in fear in that particular crowd. Does Heiko mean Sir Keith Joseph ? I can’t recall a Sir Michael.
    There was also many different religious sects some very strange indeed. I always promised myself another visit but not had the opportunity . It’s a very good place to take visitors from abroad . They come away with a very memorable experience as we did this morning. Thank you for this interesting article.

  2. March 28, 2022

    A wonderful corner!

  3. David Walsh permalink
    March 28, 2022

    Sir “Michael” Joseph? Surely you mean the late Sir Keith ?

  4. Adam Daly permalink
    March 28, 2022

    I was a regulat visitor to Speaker’s Corner from the mid-1970’s, and on throughout the 1980’s. Although I stopped going from the 1990’s onwards, as I felt the overall standard of debate was falling, with far too many religious fanatics, and ill-assorted clowns and ‘loonies’. I never spoke and rarely heckled. Instead I engaged in discussion on the sidelines. Two speakers stood out for me personally – one of whom, who was simply called ‘Joshua’, was an old friend of mine. He was a classic 1960’s counter-culturalist, with a truly Messianic appearance. He had hair all over the place, wore ragged robes, and walked bare foot. But he was actually a Balliol graduate, who had dropped out in order to devote himself totally to Revolution and Evolution. And he was a spell-binding orator, who had cut his teeth by taking the Oxford Union by storm as an undergraduate, even though years later he was known in London as ‘The King of the Squatters’, having played a part in opening up 144, Piccadilly, the first major squat in London. He always researched his speeches meticulously in public libraries and rarely repeated himself – unlike Jim Huggon, the Hyde Park Anarchist, who became a bit of a bore after a while, endlessly repeating the same not very good jokes. On one occasion, Joshua held about a hundred and fifty people in the palm of his hand giving a four-hour speech on the evils of the Vietnam War, dressed only in a sack! On another occasion, he stood on a skip stripped to the waist, demanding to know from hecklers whether they’d been ‘present at The Creation’, because he had been, and could therefore speak with infinitely more authority about absolutely anything than they! He was often heckled for not washing, and would sometimes angrily retort: ‘Socrates didn’t wash!’ And he really hated being photographed, yelling at anyone who snapped him: ‘Stop that now or I’ll come down and stamp on your camera! This is not Hollywood!’ I never knew his real name or age or much about him, other than what I was told by a University-contemporary of his, a barrister, whose testimony I trusted. But he was a total one-off, and it’s hard to imagine anybody like that surviving even in today’s world. Speaker’s Corner for him was an ‘open-air University’, and a ‘launching-pad for Total Change’. He died of complications resulting from exposure, about twenty five years ago. The other speaker was a Maths lecturer known as ‘Paul the Prophet’, who in contrast to Joshua appeared very conventional. Yet his mind was anything but conventional. He developed his own philosophy of life stemming from Nietzsche and many other sources, and occasionally would do something utterly unique for a Hyde Park orator: he would stand on his soap-box in total silence staring at the crowd around him with Olympian contempt, as if they were sub-human. And when somebody dared to start heckling him, he would then proceed to take them apart intellectually with forensic briliance. Priceless! He didn’t miss a Sunday for abot 40 years I believe, but cut a sad figure eventually, standing like a shrunken sentry on his soap-box, with not a soul around him even to stare at. Then one day he no longer came. But those were the days, and I fear they will never come back, or not in my lifetime – and I’m 68 now. I miss those heady times greatly. Their abounding freedoms, exuberance and idealistic passions haven’t been emulated since.

  5. Victoria Strauss permalink
    March 28, 2022

    Does anyone else remember the mild-looking man who walked the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street in the ‘70’s carrying a placard proclaiming “No meat, no protein, no sitting down, no sex.” He sold a modestly priced leaflet, which unfortunately I no longer have.

  6. Richard permalink
    March 28, 2022

    Thanks for the views of speakers corner. Thanks Adam Daly as well. Yes, it used to be much more political as I remember from occasional visits.

  7. April 18, 2022

    @ Victoria Strauss: His name was Stanley Green. Nothing in common with the Speakers’ Corner I am afraid. Except his eccentricity, perhaps.
    Some more information:
    You can peruse his placards and aforesaid leaflets in the Museum of London.
    Here is the pic of this gentleman I took in 1991:

  8. April 18, 2022

    One more thing.

    Does anybody recognize the orator on my photographs?
    I took them in 1991.
    AFAIR his name was Tom. I liked his speeches. He was an Anti-Thatcherist.

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